Friday, June 25, 2010

My absurd Margaret Oliphant reading list

Let's say that I, newly converted to the pleasures of Margaret Oliphant, wanted to put together an Oliphant reading list.  What do the People Who Have Read Oliphant think I should read?

The Doctor's Family and Other Stories (1861), so that’s one down
Salem Chapel (1863)
The Perpetual Curate (1864)
Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Phoebe Junior (1876)  - these are all Carlingford novels.
Hester (1883)
The Beleaguered City and Other Stories (1880) – ghost stories
The Autobiography (1899), posthumous.

Only Miss Marjoribanks (Penguin), Hester (Oxford), and Phoebe Junior and The Autobiography (both Broadview) seem to be in print now. So that’s one snapshot of the Oliphant canon.  Time to get reading.

Hang on a minute.  I’ve gone from not really being sure I should read Oliphant at all to eight books, five of which are fat three-volume novels.  Can this possibly be right?

My copy of Treasure Island, an Oxford World’s Classics edition from the early 1990s, has a page in the back listing Oxford’s then-current offering of Anthony Trollope books.  They had thirty (30) Trollopes in print.  This is distinct from those attractive orange paperbacks Penguin was publishing at the same time, a set of fifty-three (53!) Trollope books.  Can there possibly be thirty good Trollope books, thirty still worth reading?

The standard Trollope list includes the six Barsetshire novels, the six Palliser novels, He Knew He Was Right, The Way We Live Now, maybe Orley Farm, and possibly An Autobiography.  So the pared-down Trollope is sixteen books.  I’ve read the Barsetshire set, and an abridgement of the travel book North America (historical interest: high, literary interest: low), which means if I read them all, and I’d like to, I’m up to seventeen books by Anthony Trollope.  And still out there: Cousin Henry and Is He Popenjoy? and Mr. Scarborough's Family ("A masterpiece of legal fiction," the undiscriminating back of the Oxford paperback informs me).

I have read seventeen books by how many writers?  Almost none.  Two, I think: William Faulkner and Vladimir Nabokov.  Close: Richardson (Clarissa counts as nine books, right?), Goethe, Balzac, Dickens, Calvino, John Banville, and I should say that for some of these writers, I have read too much, books that are at best marginal, and occasionally pretty bad.  My new addition to the list is Robert Louis Stevenson, sixteen or so books in the last six months, which in terms of page count probably amounts to a third of those seventeen Trollope books.

Even my ”eight book” list, which might someday include Margaret Oliphant, is quite short, and puzzling.  Why on earth have I read eight books by A. N. Wilson?  Why have I read only eight books by Penelope Fitzgerald?  I am probably forgetting some childhood writers – I seem to have read eight novels by Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, and I would not mind rereading some of them.  The Antiquary was my seventh Walter Scott novel.  Seven by Jane Austen, John Galt, Herman Melville, Thomas Pynchon.  What should my highest priority be: my eighth Trollope book, my second Oliphant, my thirty-second Balzac nouvelle?  Or Middlemarch (Eliot #4) and The Portrait of a Lady (James # 2 or 3) and The Magic Mountain (Mann #2), genuinely important books, and, very likely, better books, that I haven’t read? 

I don’t normally think about books quite in this ludicrous way.  Making the Oliphant reading list emphasized the issue.  The horrifying truth is, those eight Oliphant books, at least, are probably all worth reading.  They are, I presume, well written, contain genuine insights about human behavior, have funny moments, and are instructive about their time and place.  Same with those thirty Trollope books.  I don’t expect to find the equivalent of Anna Karenina or Bleak House (both of which, to add another priority, I should read for the third time) among them.  But, give me enough years, and I bet I’ll read 'em.  Not the thirty Trollopes – I mean the sixteen.  And not – well, that’s enough of this.

Next week, a reason or two to keep reading, let’s say, too much Robert Louis Stevenson.


  1. Wow. So many books to read. I don't think I've read even three books by any author. I'm working on it. Give me a few more decades...Some day maybe I'll get to Oliphant. Maybe one at least.

  2. So impressive. And so strange. And such an unlikely prompt: Oliphant (0 and holding). I was thinking something like the same thing recently, in much smaller numbers, trying to figure out the reading list for my daughter, but working my own reading into it at the same time. We need to work out an equation that accounts for value, it seems, while coverage is still a priority.

    The daughter veered off track mid-Oliver Twist to dive into The Magic Mountain. Started working too and her pace is now slow. The Warden and Madame Bovary would be done by now. Instead, MM is this summer's Infinite Jest.

    How many Coetzees, Jewetts, Smolletts, Hawthornes, Thackerays, Leskovs, Conrads? Ainsworth or Oliphant? Making up ground on George Eliot, Scott and Galt are impressive, but the James total is low and it'd be great to see some one crack getting into the teens on Richardson, going for Grandison, no?

  3. The right way to read, of course, is to follow books wherever they lead and don't follow lists. The list is just boundary-setting, literary history.

    Rebecca's got it right - decades. This is all long term. I mean, if someone read two Trollope novels a year for fifteen years, that would not seem odd. Why not.

    I do think you, Rebecca, would enjoy the Oliphant I read. Trollope, too. The Warden is short, and excellent, and you're doing a Victorian push now, right? Trollope is eminently Victorian.

    zhiv, I think The Magic Mountain = The Warden + Madame Bovary in this weighting scheme, absolutely.

    James is a major Humiliation. I've only read The Turn of the Screw, Daisy Miller, the minor The Europeans and a few other stories.

    Richardson, though - I've polished off Sir Charles Grandison. It's good. My formula for including Richardson on that list was 1 (Pamela) + 9 (Clarissa) + 5 (Grandison) = 15 Richardson novel equivalents. All very scientific.

  4. As a Trollope afficionado, I have been interested following your experiences with Oliphant. Sadly, the Book Depository (my main source of books) has very little in the way of Oliphantery :(

    Regarding most books by one author, I was pretty confident it was Trollope (13 - The Barchester Chronicles, the Palliser Novels and 'The Way We Live Now') until I recalled that I've read most of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. And then I remembered my childhood...

    I'm afraid the absolutely undisputed Queen of my reading books-by-one-author challenge is none other than the thoroughly un-PC Enid Blyton with at least 50 - and possibly many more ;)

  5. Oh if we count childhood books, I've plenty by one my embarassment.

    But otherwise, I'll aim for two or three Dickens and two or three Eliot and a few Trollopes etc. this year and pretty soon I will have made it through a good number...

  6. After reading this post, I will have to add Oliphant to my reading on earth have I missed her all these years? Thanks!

  7. Childhood books certainly count, if you know how to count them. How many Hardy Boys books, how many Oz books (by Frank Baum or Ruth Plumly Thompson), how many Boxcar Children books did I read - I have no idea. However many my library had.

    I'm glad to hear that people are curious about Oliphant. I hope I have "placed" her well - not necessarily an "important" writer, but a rewarding one.

  8. I think you may set me to counting, this afternoon when my, ahem, obligations are fewer. I know I've done a lot in the half-dozen or so range. I was thinking about some kind of general self-evaluation since we're coming up on the year's halfway point, and I need to figure out...some stuff. I mean the decades-long type stuff. Because I do just follow where things go. But I feel like I'd like to place better where I actually am, so far.

  9. Ah ha! That's the big two week Wuthering Expectations event I need to figure out how to put together: An Apology for Literary History.

    Your last sentence suggested the idea. You want to follow books where they lead, but boy does it help to know the landscape.

  10. Wow. Impressive. Of course, I had to immediately check my Goodreads list: the classics author for whom I've read the most works is Dickens, with 9, followed by Edith Wharton, with 8. I have so many left to read! Well, there's always Steinbeck, and Pearl S. Buck. I didn't realize so much of Trollope wasn't worth reading.

    I've moved Oliphant up on my reading list!

  11. Well, read long enough and they begin to add up.

    The Trollope example suggests that if you're a second-tier author, be sure to write a series or two. Just Barchester + Palliser = 12 Trollope novels worth reading, more than most good writers can claim.

  12. I love this post. I consider myself a fan of Trollope but I'll admit one of his novels is much like another. That's what I like about them. I think the same is true of Oliphant, though I've only read two of hers.

    I do wish more of Oliphant was in print.

  13. Trollope can sometimes seem like a high-end "comfort" writer, can't he?

  14. I am pondering what Trollope to read for the upcoming classics circuit-I have a copy of Orley Farms I got an a clearance sale of Oxford Paper Backs but I just read in Ford Madox Ford's March of Literature that Ford thought Farmley Parsonage was the greatest novel ever-of course A March of Literature is a strange work of genius -I will I hope read my first Oliphant and James Hogg before year end-right now I have five Elizabeth Bowen works to read-

  15. Framley Pasonage! Ha ha ha! No, you're right, that's what he says, his favorite by "private preference." Wonder why.

    Orley Farm sounds good. Your whole list soudns good.

  16. as I read through March of Literature FMF sheer memory is amazing-I am about 60 percent done but I am also using it as a reference book also-